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Turtles King In Caymans

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Turtles King In Caymans
03May 2012

The first sighting of land after the fourth and final voyage to the New World by Christopher Columbus had the captain and his crew in a tizzy. But it wasn’t making landfall after the long voyage that caused all the excitement. It was the extraordinary scene confronting the ship’s boatswain that nearly caused him to tumble out of the crow’s nest.

Columbus documented the occurrence in the ship’s log of May 10, 1503:

"We were in sight of two very small and low islands, full of tortoises (turtles), as was all the sea all about, insomuch that they looked like little rocks.”

The famed explorer named the rock-bound archipelago overrun with turtles, known today as the Grand Cayman Islands, Las Tortugas “the turtles” in Spanish.

Located 480 miles south of Miami, the British Overseas Territory consisting of three islands—Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac—boasts a glittering array of tropical diversions. The largest of the trio, Grand Cayman, includes such tourist inducements as a multitude of dive sites teeming with marine life, the white sands of Seven Mile Beach, and Stingray City, where visitors can swim with the briny creatures. George Town, the island’s cosmopolitan capital city, offers fine dining and shopping galore.

All this and more, against the tropical setting of a near-perfect climate.

Close encounters

One of the island’s most popular tourist attractions is the Cayman Turtle Centre. It’s the largest facility of its kind in the world, home to more than 8,000 turtles ranging in size from tiny six-ounce babies to a massive female named “Sparky” weighing in at 565 pounds. Since its relocation to West Bay, the expanded hands-on, interactive marine-themed park now spans nearly 30 acres.

According to our guide Bendel “Benny” Ebanks, a 20-year veteran of the Turtle Centre, it’s the only place in the world where sea turtles can be observed through their entire life cycle, and where different species, including 9- to 18-month-old juveniles, can be picked up, cuddled and photographed, while the bigger ones ages three to nine years, are caught on camera at close range. Visitors are also invited to swim with the shelled reptiles in residence.

But it’s not all just fun and games at the Turtle Centre. The internationally renowned research and conservation center is dedicated to developing and preserving the indigenous green sea turtle species by providing local markets with a safe source of edible turtle meat to discourage hunting in the wild, while releasing tens of thousands of new hatchlings and yearlings into local waters to help grow the population.

With our 10-year-old grandson, Bryson, in tow, we began our aquatic exploration at the Breeding Pond, for his first encounter with a real-life green sea turtle. The species has been around since the age of the dinosaurs, but the closest thing this Arizona kid has ever come across back home is a lizard slithering across the desert sand.

Gleeful visitors to the Touch Tanks, each holding a squiqqling yearling turtle with its fins flapping, smiled for the surrounding paparazzi of friends and family. Bryson gently held his own tiny charge, while Benny rubbed its neck and under the chin, explaining “this has a calming effect if the turtles become agitated.”

One of the largest freshwater swimming pools in the Cayman Islands can be found at the Turtle Centre’s Breakers Lagoon. We joined several other guests for a chance to snorkel (with lifeguards in attendance) in the nearby Boatswain’s saltwater lagoon, stocked with thousands of colorful reef fish and yearling turtles. In both lagoons, you can swim right up to underwater viewing panels, nearly nose-to-nose with sharks and other predatory fish in the Predator Reef. Houdini, the Great Barracuda, swam by right in front of our eyes.

The Centre’s Caribbean Aviary is home to a variety of colorful parrots, national bird of the Cayman Islands. Vibrantly hued Scarlet Ibis and other fine feathered creatures wander freely about the grounds and into a tiny wading pool surrounded by indigenous flora, gently rippling the water with their elegant elongated beaks, creating a picture-perfect scene. Hidden at the back of the park, the Blue Hole Nature Trail loops through an evergreen woodland, and along a miniature native orchid garden, a butterfly garden and a mahogany grove, all amid a flashing kaleidoscope of colorful native birds.

At the Schooner’s Bar and Grill overlooking Boatswain’s Lagoon, diners watch local chefs preparing traditional island specialties such as conch, shrimp, jerk chicken…and yes, if you’re up to it, a variety of turtle dishes, including the favored turtle soup.


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